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Legendary Recording Engineer Al Schmitt Dies at 91

Al Schmitt
Chris Schmitt

Al Schmitt

Recording engineer Al Schmitt died at the age of 91 on Monday (April 26), according to his family. With 20 Grammy wins for his work with everyone from Ray Charles to Paul McCartney to Natalie Cole to Steely Dan, Schmitt won more Grammy Awards than any other engineer in music history. In addition to earning a Grammy trustees award in 2006, he became the first person to win a Grammy album of the year award and a Latin Grammy album of the year award (for Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company and Luis Miguel's Amarte Es Un Placer, respectively); additionally, he's recorded more than 150 gold and platinum albums.

With a knack for lush, detailed productions that bring to mind the era of classic vocal jazz, Schmitt won Grammys in six consecutive decades starting in the '60s, when he won his first award for his engineering work on Henry Mancini's Hatari soundtrack. Most recently, he won the 2013 best surround sound album Grammy for McCartney's Live Kisses.

On Schmitt's Facebook page (which he was very active on up until his passing), the family posted the following note: "Al Schmitt’s wife Lisa, his five children, eight grandchildren, and five great grandchildren would like his friends and extended recording industry family to know that he passed away Monday afternoon, April 26. The world has lost a much loved and respected extraordinary individual, who led an extraordinary life. The most honored and awarded recording producer/engineer of all time, his parting words at any speaking engagement were, 'Please be kind to all living things.' Loved and admired by his recording colleagues, and by the countless artists he worked with, from Jefferson Airplane, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Diana Krall, Dr. John, Natalie Cole and Jackson Browne to Bob Dylan—and so many more—Al will be sorely missed. He was a man who loved deeply, and the friendships, love and admiration he received in return enriched his life and truly mattered to him. A light has dimmed in the world, but we all learned so much from him in his time on earth, and are so very grateful to have known him."

Born April 17, 1930 in Brooklyn, Schmitt served in the U.S. Navy and began apprenticing at Apex Recording Studios in New York City when he was 19. It was there he began working with legendary engineer/producer Tom Dowd, eventually engineering a session for Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on his own when no one else was around.

"Duke Ellington sat next to me, and I was so nervous and it was obvious. I kept saying, 'You know, Mr. Ellington, I'm really not qualified to do this. This was a huge mistake,'" Schmitt told Billboard in a special tribute to the engineer in 2012. "And he kept patting me on the leg and saying, 'Don't worry, son. We're going to get through this.' And that was it. I got thrown in, we got it done, we did four sides. The nice thing was it gave me confidence that I was able to do it. I often think that if they'd told me the night before that I was going to record Duke Ellington the next day, I probably would have called in sick."

In the same spotlight, McCartney said of Schmitt, "If Al made furniture, it would be Chippendale. If he was a painter, he would be Monet. But Al makes music and it's a Schmitt! He's one of the best in the world and it is my great pleasure to work with such a superb craftsman. He's also a great guy."

After a 1963 move to Los Angeles to work for RCA, he began his run of classic recordings, engineering material for Cooke ("Cupid," "Another Saturday Night") and Mancini (including "Moon River"). When he went independent in 1966, he continued to engineer LPs and singles for a slew of legends, including Young, Browne, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Sinatra (both Duets albums), Natalie Cole (Grammy album of the year winner Unforgettable… With Love), Toto's Toto IV (another Grammy album of the year winner), Diana Krall, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan and many more.

“An ingenious producer and engineer, a 20-time Grammy winner, a Recording Academy trustees award recipient, and so much more, Al Schmitt was a true legend," said Harvey Mason Jr., chair & interim president/CEO of the Recording Academy. "His incredible work in the studio brought us iconic pieces of work from many artists, including Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, and Diana Krall, leaving an indelible mark on the recording industry. We are forever grateful for his contributions as a founding member of the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing and to the art and craft of recorded music. We send our love and condolences to his family, friends and collaborators.”

Capitol Studios, Schmitt's home for so many years, also lauded his unparalleled career. "Al Schmitt, a member of our family passed away yesterday evening," the studio posted on Instagram. "A legend. An icon. A friend. Al was not only the most celebrated and decorated engineer, but also the most beloved. Nobody in our industry thinks of Capitol Studios without also thinking of Al Schmitt. His legacy will live on forever through his incredible spirit and the iconic music that he created in our studios....We’re thinking about you Al… always."

Patrick Kraus, Universal Music Group's senior vp of recording studios and archive management, commented, “We mourn the loss of our dear friend, Al Schmitt, and celebrate the life and legacy of one of the most accomplished engineers and producers who ever walked into a recording studio. Al worked with iconic artists on some of the biggest albums of all time. The list of his accomplishments – from Grammy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to gold- and platinum-certified records – is long and distinguished. It’s hard to imagine Capitol Studios without Al at a console, dialing in a mix, catching up with one of his many friends or lighting the place up with his smile and laugh. He will be deeply missed.”

Schmitt's love for music -- and attention to detail -- stemmed all the way back to his childhood, as he shared in a 2018 interview with Billboard. “My uncle [a record producer] bought me a little wind-up phonograph and I was listening to big bands all the time,” Schmitt told Billboard while promoting his memoir/how-to manual On the Record: The Magic Behind the Music. “I listened to where they had the strings, how the strings are set up, what rhythm sections sounded like, how far in front the vocalist was. Those were things that were important to me when I was even a little kid."

When asked if he considered himself, 88 at the time of that interview, even semi-retired, Schmitt replied, "Only when the phone doesn’t ring."

But the phone never stopped ringing. More recently, Schmitt had worked on The Mavericks' En Español album and Trisha Yearwood's Sinatra tribute, Let's Be Frank, both in 2019.

Additional reporting by Melinda Newman and Paul Verna.

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